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This study explored how competitive educational robotics programs for youth contribute to the development of future innovative leaders in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. The importance of leadership in creating a climate for innovation is recognized by scholars (Eisenbeiss, van Knippenberg, & Boerner, 2008; Oke, Munshi, & Walumbwa, 2009; Sarros, Cooper, & Santora, 2008) and educational robotics programs, like FIRST® LEGO® League (FLL), that include leadership development in their organizational missions. While youth interest in STEM and youth leadership development have been previously researched, the intersection of leadership development and STEM learning appears to be a new field for research.
In this study, questionnaires assessing attitudes toward leadership importance, leadership development, and perceived leader development changes as a result of participating in FLL were collected from 501 youth participants at four Nebraska FLL tournaments. Across 74 teams, 67.9% of youth were male and 85.4% were white. Teams consisted of youth, age eight to 15 (M = 11.4) with one to five years of FLL experience (M = 1.5) and had a team size mean of 7.71 members. On a five point Likert scale, participants reported high levels of Leadership Importance (M = 4.45, SD = 0.59) and Leader Development (M = 4.26, SD = 0.51). On the scale measuring perceived leadership development changes due to their FLL experience, youth reported improvement (M = 4.25; SD = 0.62).
Multilevel linear models assessed team and individual level effects. For Leadership Importance, significant effects were gender within teams, team age, and experience within teams. For Current Leader Development, team age and experience within teams were significant. No demographic variables had significant effects on the scale assessing perceived leader development changes. The models explained 15 – 24% of variance for the leadership outcomes, indicating additional research is needed to further understand factors influencing youth leadership development through FLL. Overall, results suggest that educational robotics competitions are contributing to the “STEM pipeline” and influencing youth to become innovative leaders in STEM.
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